Artist helps pupils brush up on culture

Art: A class at Central Elementary in Edgewater exposes pupils to the style of Chinese brush painting.

February 28, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Pupils in Greta Morris' art class at Central Elementary in Edgewater had recently finished drawing crayon reproductions of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," a masterpiece of European painting, when they were asked to learn a different kind of art.

Instead of pressing down hard with crayons to fill every inch of their drawing papers, they were asked by visiting artist Jing-Jy Chen to paint in the Chinese tradition, using light watercolor brush strokes and leaving large blank spaces around flowers, bamboo trees and dragonflies.

"Gradually, they will learn all those things. They will see that less is more," said Chen, one of 57 visual artists affiliated with the Maryland State Arts Council, which awards grants to schools so they can hire painters, sculptors and mixed-media artists to supplement the regular art curriculum.

Pamela Dunne, who heads the council's Arts in Education program, said Chen's visits are an eye-opener for some pupils. "For children who don't have an Asian background, it gives them a more three-dimensional knowledge of their classmates who may be of Asian background," Dunne said.

Chen, a Taiwanese native who trained in Canada and exhibits her work in galleries around Maryland, is the only Asian artist in the art council group. Morris invited Chen to teach for the month of February because some of her pupils are studying Japanese culture in their social studies class. The school's PTA raised money to match the arts council $1,400 grant and provided bamboo brushes, ink and watercolors.

After Central Elementary, Chen is scheduled to teach at schools in Baltimore and Howard counties.

"Children have open minds," said Chen, 59, explaining why she enjoys teaching at schools. "You have to be fearless for the brush strokes to come out."

Despite that assertion, Chen found she had to encourage some of the pupils to discard their preconceptions about art, during their first forays into Chinese brush painting, which is related to the Japanese sumi-e painting style.

After painting bamboo trees with delicate tapering leaves, some pupils tried to fill in the rest of the white newsprint paper with a blue sky and a sun. Morris and Chen stopped them.

"That's what they're used to doing," Morris said. She repeatedly pointed out to pupils how brush painting differs from Western art, both in the way it uses white space and the steady, measured strokes perfected through years of repetition.

Chen, who has painted for decades, coached the pupils on the proper way to hold a bamboo brush (vertically, between two fingers and a thumb), the way to wet the brush (wet, but not dripping), the way to sit (with a straight back and the left hand flat on the paper) and the way to create a good composition.

"I don't want to pile up all my flowers at the same height. That's so boring," she told a second-grade class, as she deftly painted daisies using a brush dipped first in red, then in blue. Each petal hardly required a stroke, forming naturally from the shape of the brush as it was pressed down and lifted back up.

The artist said she developed the simple technique for this flower - not an usual subject for Chinese artists - for younger pupils. She did, however, teach them to decorate their flower paintings with more traditional dragonflies.

Several pupils, unable to resist the temptation to fill their sheets, drew dozens of multicolored flowers and dragonflies.

Ben Rapp, 6, perked up as Chen showed the class how to write the date and names of the seasons in Chinese calligraphy. He became absorbed in filling a yellow sheet of paper with the characters, which he said he had seen in karate class.

In another class, fourth-grader Jamie Whilden said calligraphy was the most difficult aspect of the art, although she has never before drawn bamboo, either. "That's the first time I actually got it to go straight," she said, as she finished writing the date in a vertical column on her paper's left side.

After the pupils finished their drawings, they marched one by one to the front of the classroom to display their work. Chen praised fourth-grader Taylor Niland's bamboo-and-dragonfly composition. "It's a really nice job, not too busy," Chen said.

Taylor said the dragonflies were her biggest challenge. "If you press too hard, they get too wide. If you press too soft, you can barely see them," she told the class.

Carol Ann Drescher, 10, the next pupil in the procession, criticized her own drawing. "I do not like those dragonflies. They are fat," she said.

Morris said the art lessons have fueled her pupils' interest in Asian cultures. "They want to go to Japan," she said. "They want to see what school is like there."

One child even got his mother to invest in a brush painting kit from a craft store and has been practicing at home, she said.

The pupils' brush paintings will be displayed March 18 at a public reception at the school.

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